Using Argumentative Discussion to Enhance the Written Arguments of Middle School Students in Social Studies Classrooms

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link






The purpose of this study was to explore the effects of Walton, Reed, and Macagno's (2008) dialectical framework on middle school students' historical discussions and written arguments. To do this,151 middle school students from six classrooms were randomly assigned to one of two conditions and asked to participate in a three-week intervention that featured: (a) examining three controversial topics in history, (b) primary source documents, (b) argumentative discussions, and (c) constructing argumentative essays. Because students were taught in small groups, the average performance of 12 groups of students who were assigned to the experimental condition was compared to the average performance of 12 groups of students who were assigned to the comparison conditions. Students in the experimental condition learned argumentative schemes and asked critical questions during discussions. Students in the comparison condition participated in the same historical investigations, received the same materials for instruction, engaged in discussions, and learned about text structure for writing argumentative essays in ways comparable to the experimental group, but used a traditional set of questions during discussions.

The findings indicated a significant relationship between teaching students to use argumentative schemes and to ask critical questions during discussions and performance on students' resulting content knowledge. Main effects were also evident regarding students' historical thinking, a writing outcome that reflected use of evidence, ability to write from an author's perspective, use of contextual information, and the inclusion of rebuttals in their essays. While significant differences were not present between conditions on three outcome measures (i.e., reading comprehension, length of essays, or overall writing quality) students' in both sets of groups averaged moderate-to-high scores for reading comprehension and constructed essays that were considered proficient or advanced on the PSSA writing rubric. Taken together, the results of the study were encouraging and align with many of those in the existing literature, which emphasize the positive effects of integrating discussion in classroom activities.